Fran Herndon: A Remembrance
I remember the day I moved into her house: August 13, 1994. And I remember a few days before that, as I was moving stuff in, when the front doorknob came off in my hand. It had probably been on the door when the house went up about a hundred years before. It had two spindles, each of which were a half circle in cross-section so I had to hold them together to form the cylinder. I worked it back through the hole in the door and then turned the knob this way and that until it (barely) engaged the spindle contraption. I wrote a Post-it note telling Fran that I had broken her doorknob and would pay for its replacement. The next day I read the Post-it she left for me, telling me that she fixed the whole thing with a screwdriver and it now worked fine.
After I was fully moved in, and the doorknob kept coming off in my hand, I learned to apply a little pressure to the right as I turned it, essentially bracing it against a hard surface. What seemed needlessly cumbersome at first became second nature before long. Meanwhile I learned to appreciate the sheen of brass hardware, the refractions of fluted glass.
The Hard Way Is the Best Way — that was Fran’s way. Hers was the world of standard-shift cars and non-motor lawnmowers, three-mile morning strolls, low thermostats in the winter, and fickle doorknobs. She did have a toaster-oven, one of her very few conveniences, in which she would bake (not nuke) a sweet potato almost every afternoon around 4:30, constituting her entire supper — which, except for a few turns of the pepper grinder, she ate plain. Aside from simply liking them, she told me they brought back memories of her girlhood in North Carolina. (Even her comfort food was healthy, gimme a break.) The aroma would drift up to my third floor, signaling that all was well in the house.
Fran was 94 when she died on May 24, 2020. Her passing seemed to close a chapter on a legendary era in Bay Area arts. It was also a personal loss to those younger artists and poets who came to know her decades later, after her return to painting and drawing and collage and the creation of an entirely new body of work. As she began to attend their readings and openings they discovered not only a link to a particularly rich era of cultural history, but a forward-looking and self-challenging artist of the here and now.
She was the eighth of nine children, born in 1927 into back-roads country whose nearest town, sizeable compared to the surrounding villages, had only six surnames among its inhabitants. Her ethnic inheritance was complex, and she always identified as a woman of color. Of her mother’s side Fran knew little; she always referred to her mother as white. Her father’s side was composed of sources as varied as Cameroonian, Ghanaian, North Carolinian Lumbee, Nigerian, and Welsh. He was a tobacco farmer who owned his acreage — an unusual circumstance given the racism at work in that time and place. Fran remembered his routine: work the farm, lunch at home followed by two cigars on the front porch, then back to work. She held up two fingers whenever she told me the story, stressing the unalterable quantity of the cigars. The night before the annual county auction each year he would sleep in the barn with the harvested tobacco, protecting his crop from thieves.
Fran loved to reminisce about this time in her life. She would tell me about the farm and the seasons, her father foraging herbs for the medicine chest and her brothers doing progressively heavier fieldwork as they got older. Fran followed her brothers with a small sack, gleaning what they’d missed. There was housework too, sweeping and washing and straightening. And staying out of the way; she was unintentionally good at that one, her nose always in a book. When the family went into town for supplies she stayed to mind the house. Except she didn’t do that: she stone-stepped across a creek and snuck over to her favorite playmates, two sisters from a neighboring family. She had an accomplice in the girls’ father, who had a view of the main road; he would see the Godwin wagon coming back from town and tell her to skedaddle home before her father found out.
When Fran’s teachers came out to the farm and told her father he had an exceptional daughter who should continue her education beyond high school, he was reluctant but knew they were right. She went to a two-year state college, where she was the lone minority. After college she looked for jobs. No luck: women of color were simply not going to be hired for anything other than domestic work. She told her parents she had a friend in Richmond with whom she could stay while she looked for work. Once she had their blessings, she took off — for Chicago.
She landed a secretarial position at the Chicago Analytic Institute, and was adored by the staff. But Chicago was a rude awakening. She thought racial attitudes up North must surely be better than her home counties, but Chicago turned out to be every bit as bad, its racism pervasive, big-city, systemic. Chicago was the one period of her life she didn’t like to talk about.
She applied for a job with the US Foreign Service and was sent to France, where she was very happy. She had warm memories of the family in Nancy who welcomed her in and under whose roof her French got very good. As did her French cooking, as anyone who was ever a guest at a Fran Herndon dinner party can attest. (Does it need to be said that she refused any help in washing the dishes and cleaning up afterward?) She was still going to France in her seventies, a week here, two weeks there. And not as part of some “senior group package” nonsense but driving through the Alps alone in a rented car (a hard-to-shift Citroën, no doubt).
In France she met James Herndon, a peripatetic like herself. He was one of those nine-lives individuals who had been at various times a merchant seaman, file clerk, machinist, and even oboe player in the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra. Jim was the sort of man, so she told me, who would travel cross-country at a moment’s notice to talk to somebody who interested him (Richard Feynman was one such example.) They got married in Paris and when Fran’s two-year assignment with the Foreign Service came to an end in 1957 they moved to the Bay Area, where Jim had been a student at Berkeley.
It was an exciting time and place. Various constellations of painters and poets were entering phases of supreme achievement while others were just hitting their stride. One particular group of poets was composed of three Berkeley alumni with shared interests in Poundian modernism, anarcho-syndicalism, medieval signs and messages, queer vision, and a strongly held belief in the poem as an unbidden and exacting outside presence. Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser were originally christened the Berkeley Renaissance, and later the San Francisco Renaissance — perhaps to distinguish them from the leading players in the Beat movement, a scene they disliked. In any case, most of them were living in the latter city by the time the Herndons arrived.
Jim reconnected with Spicer, a former roommate at Cal, and himself just back from an unhappy stretch of time on the East Coast. Spicer’s first book, After Lorca, was published by White Rabbit Press later that year, and he was conducting a Poetry as Magic workshop at San Francisco State. His bond with Fran was immediate, even though his racist and sexist sides were willing, in other contexts, to express themselves in ugly provocations. Her supreme personableness was surely a factor in their friendship, but I wonder if Spicer, a troubled and troubling poet who was haunted by an acute recognition of his own otherness, didn’t also see her as a companion outsider.
Fran’s secretarial skills were not lost on Spicer when he decided to put out a mimeo magazine. J was the result. Named after Jim and Fran’s firstborn son Jay, it was a lively mix of known and unknown writers and artists. About twenty pages in length, it was edited by Jack and Fran, but Fran did all the typing and layout and collating. And also the covers, which, if you look closely into the mesh of type, tell you where to send your submission — to “the box marked J in The Place, 1546 Grant Avenue,” Spicer’s bar of choice. He was also able to dragoon Fran into returning manuscripts to their owners accompanied by letters he wrote but made her sign her name to, advising the hapless poet to “take this poetry and shove it up your ass!” One would have to know Fran’s regular disposition to see how ludicrously out of character such pranks were. Spicer had that kind of effect on people.
The story goes that Fran had no intention of making art until Spicer saw something in her that she didn’t see in herself and began encouraging her. This was Fran’s version as well, but I’ve always been skeptical. In my version, an artistic bent, and a propensity for other-seeing, were essential parts of her being, but stayed submerged during those years when she’d had to concentrate her energies on getting out of the South and finding meaningful work. These qualities began to assert themselves in Europe, and when she finally started a new life with Jim in San Francisco among art-besotted poets the diffidence vanished and she was on her way. Fran was among a supremely appreciative bunch of folks. She basked in their compliments but kept her own counsel. We have only to look at her great second flowering, the work which she made after finally retiring from her office job in the 1990s, and without any close-at-hand encouragement, to see the depth of her commitment.
Spicer did urge her to sign up, a few years after J, for classes at the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut Street (then called the California School of Fine Arts), and when he saw the lithographs she was producing he was amazed — they conjured frozen rituals of a sort he was grappling with himself, as he strove to realize the serial works that would make up The Heads of the Town up to the Aether. Though Spicer’s interest in Fran’s work was something she always remembered gratefully, the enrichment was mutual. Those lithographs were helping him get somewhere.
In the coming years, the friendships of Blaser and Duncan (and the painter known as Jess, Duncan’s life partner) would take on increasing significance. If ever there was a household that inculcated the Art Spirit in all its dimensions, it was the Duncan-Jess one, in its various incarnations on Baker Street in the city, then Stinson Beach, then back in the city in the Mission District. They found a house on 20th Street and a half-dozen years later moved into a different building on the same street; this last one would be the Oz-like wonder-house they would occupy for the rest of their lives. There, amid tens of thousands of books and paintings and classical records and plants and objets, poet and painter worked and collaborated and hosted the occasional soirée, at which Fran and Jim were always welcome. As Fran recounts, the talk was fast, ranging, and torrential. (Not her talk, she hastened to point out, nor Jess’s.) One Christmas she made shirts for them, knowing that their pantheon of arts certainly included that of needle and thread. They bought her paintings from time to time and found just-right places for them among all the other wonders.
The arbitrary genesis of friendships can be so beautiful. Fran told me how Duncan came to know Hilde Burton. He was in a pub and overheard someone speaking with a German accent in the next booth. He looked over the top of the booth and said “You speak German! How do I translate this phrase in Rilke?” Hilde, born in Heldenbergen in west-central Germany, was charmed by this irrepressible enthusiast with fire in his eyes and no manners, and thus began one of the most crucial friendships in each person’s life.
Duncan, Jess, Blaser, and Spicer — the combinatory energies must have been dazzling, and the ambiences thoroughly queer. How, I often wondered but didn’t think to ask, was she able to enter this highly charged world with such ease and equanimity, seemingly without any need to acclimatize? Jim’s presence and active participation in these friendships probably helped, and maybe, as suggested above, there was the mutual recognition of companion outsiders. And they were out outsiders as well, courting the risks of that particular self-exposure in the super-conformist Eisenhower 1950s. People of color are “out,” i.e., targets of discrimination, the moment they enter the world. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard for Fran to relate to a group of white males who not only chose not to play it safe but were bold and nervy and articulate about it.
It was a wonderful hothouse to be in from time to time. But when Fran reminisced, it was always the individual exchanges that seemed to mean more. She was a great friend to them all, and kept these friendships in miraculous balance even after the hothouse got progressively chilly (or maybe progressively hot?) and some of those headstrong poets became estranged from one another. Her warmth and decency and straightforwardness meant that, at least with her, they had to be on their best behavior.
When I came to live in Fran’s house only Jess and Robin remained from the group sketched above. She had been one of the corps of volunteer-friends who helped care for Duncan in his final years, and after his passing she and Jess maintained their close bond. She often brought food to him, who was disinclined to cook for one. They would sit in his living room, talking about the present and the past.
But of all these extraordinary friends, each with his own special relation to Fran, I believe Robin was the one she treasured most — and not only because they were the two who made it into their eighties in relatively good health. Robin’s friendship was deep and unconditional from the moment they met, she told me. They certainly knew how to have fun. “Try this, Fran!” he said to her at a mid-sixties party, providing the ticket and then acting as tour guide for the next few hours on the magic caterpillar. (She had a swell time, she told me, but she never repeated it.) When Jay came down with encephalitis and she was traumatized with worry, Robin provided unstinting and creative emotional support. Every day during this period he came over with an art survey or artist’s monograph. He would find a picture and say, “Draw that, Fran. Paint that. Make something in response to that.” Years later, she would say that these loving commands had saved her life. Decades later, she would put Robin and his partner David Farwell up when he visited the Bay Area (usually to give a reading or a talk) and the dinner table glowed with stories and memories and laughter and dish.
David and Robin’s visits, all too infrequent, were grand occasions. By this time a lot had changed in Fran’s life. In the late 1960s she’d gotten a degree in child psychology at Mills College and was working with pre-kindergarten kids in Visitacion Valley, in a hybrid program that was part day-care center and part developmental learning lab. It was a grassroots effort — she would go from door to door, inviting (and persuading) parents to let their children participate. This activity did not last as long as she would have liked; she and Jim separated and then divorced, and she had to enter the job market. She started working at Crown Zellerbach, a paper company whose downtown headquarters occupied the first International Style sunlight-blocking slab to grace San Francisco’s skyline. She eventually became shipping coordinator, a position she disliked but was very good at.
When I moved in, she had recently concluded her small side-business, Sanfran Chutney, and she had exactly one more week to go at Crown Zellerbach before she retired. I remember hearing the getting-ready-for-work rituals from my top floor during that single week, and then she was free. She returned to artmaking like someone released from a spell. (Or put back under one.) The work came steadily. She joined a painting group under the guidance of Leigh Hyams, and her skill in a variety of media got exponentially better (i.e., more adventurous). She took trips with the group to San Miguel de Allende in south-central Mexico, and a single trip to Majorca from which she came back with a stunning batch of pictures done on paper with fresco paint.
Around the time of this Majorca trip she began a series of pen-and-ink drawings which revisit the black and white sensorium of the Aether lithographs. They count among her best works. Finely detailed and painstakingly rendered, the sectioned surfaces evoke intricate fabrics or geological strata or the interiors of mitochondria — or, as Fran liked to think, landscapes from a time outside of time.
Oils, watercolors, collages, Chine-collé, prints — the works tumbled out. At the urging of poet and curator Avery Burns, she began to show at the Canessa Gallery on Montgomery Street. In that modestly sized room (said to be the headquarters of Sun Yat-sen during his brief time in San Francisco), with a pre-electricity gas fixture still emerging from one of the brick walls, the work was seen in its best aspect: tactile, companionate, secret-sharing. Fran almost never titled her works and it was always fun to have friends over to the house before a show went up. We would walk around, carefully surveying the selection, and suss the right title for each piece. (The pen-and-ink drawings mentioned above, for example, became The Terra Series.) It was like an old collation party for someone’s self-produced journal.
Fran’s most notable show was at the Altman Siegel Gallery in September 2011. Curated by Lee Plested and Kevin Killian, the survey brought recent work together with a wide range of pieces dating back to her first productions in 1957. It was one of the most beautifully hung shows I’ve ever seen. Here were the Aether lithographs and the early oils (one of the largest ones portrays Willie Mays from behind, making the famous catch; another, a garden pastoral, has a Samuel Palmer-like freshness). Her collages were well represented (Willie again, this time connecting at the plate against a backdrop of Roman ruins; and the haunting one of Marilyn Monroe, upper right, pensively studying a squad of masked and costumed figures assembled at her feet). No one will ever write a better précis of this show than Kevin, who was tragically taken from us in 2019. You can read his entire assessment on Dennis Cooper’s blog.
I lived in Fran’s house for twenty-five years. The memories are continually there in the present — sometimes conjoined, sometimes in single file, and surely imperfectly replayed a lot of the time. My favorite? It would have to be a composite. She’s been looking at something for a few days — a snapshot, a piece of fabric, the euphorbia in the backyard. Or her sights are trained on something inside — a memory, a dream, some persistent tug. I prepare to go to work. “Bye Fran,” I say at the doorway, taking care that the doorknob doesn’t come off in my hand. “Bye George,” she says from her kitchen table, halfway through the Times (always read in its entirety). In eight or nine or ten hours I come home from work and there it is: a new picture. It’s a gouache or a collage or a recently developed technique (ink on super wet paper, for example) or some combination of media unique to Fran. If I know what she’s been looking at I might see it somewhere in the final mix but rarely does it stay front and center. Instead it has become a vibrant but equal participant among dozens of others in a ply-over-ply universe. I lean into the picture, nearly touching it (I’m the bane of museum guards on two continents), studying details, marveling at the chromatic machinery, while Fran stands back and regards it at one remove, dispassionate, frowning at something going on in the upper right corner.
Someone once asked Duke Ellington what was his favorite among his own compositions and he said, “The one coming up tomorrow.” So with Fran — the one coming up tomorrow, or the day after, or next week, that one will be better. Meanwhile today a new creation rises from the work table and finds a place for itself among the other lights in the Herndon firmament.
I am indebted to Jack Herndon and Elizabeth Robinson for helping me with titles and dates for some of the paintings, and for supplying details of Fran’s history I would never otherwise have known. Elizabeth’s interview with Fran, originally appearing in the journal Fact-Simile #7, 2011, can be read here.